The 2020 Elections: Where Does Biden-Harris Team Stand on Slavery Reparations?

He thanked Black voters
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Biden and Harris. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
 
Midway into his acceptance speech on the evening of Nov. 7, after thanking the coalition of forces that put him over the top, President-elect Joe Biden looked directly into the camera, clenched his fist and with a raised voice said that from the primary in South Carolina to now, African Americans had his back, and that moving forward he would have theirs.
 
It was a dramatic moment and it sounded like a full-throated and sincere expression of gratitude from an honest and decent man. Biden’s words re-kindled a light of hope in the hearts of Black voters, 87% of whom cast their ballots for him and Kamala Harris. His promise also generated expectations that will require of him bold and decisive actions in the weeks and months ahead. 
 
Before concluding his brief remarks, Biden hastened to assure the American people that he would govern from the center as a healer and a uniter, and that he would be president for all, not just for blue states or red states but for the United States, and that included over 70 million people who voted for a man who has invariably been described as a racist, a malignant narcissist, a sociopath, a megalomaniac, a misogynist, a pathological liar, a tyrant, an authoritarian, a corrupt criminal etc., etc.  All of these negative traits, however, mattered little to Trump’s supporters.
 
Biden’s pronouncement was a head scratcher. How can one seriously represent or reconcile with the white supremacist interests of those who voted for Trump with those who voted for social justice and racial equity? Many in our community were heard to say that now is not the time for the soft language of vague platitudes. Now is the time for tough stances and resolute positions by the Biden-Harris team. You can’t soft pedal the titanic struggle against White Supremacy, many argued.
 
Biden promised to “restore the soul of the nation.” These words prompted one to ask, who truly represents the soul of America if not the progeny of a people who were enslaved when this “democratic” nation was founded in 1776, the very people who were wronged by America’s “original sin.”
 
The too-often ignored historical reality is that this “democratic” country was built on the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved and abused black bodies. Our oppressed and exploited ancestors created the foundational wealth of America. With their enforced and uncompensated labor, they produced incalculable wealth that was stolen, and this historic theft has yet to be repaid. So, the time for reparations has come. 
 
The legacies of enslavement are alive today and are reflected in the gross disparities in every quality of life index (education, health, housing etc) between White and Black Americans.
 
It is heartening to see a growing recognition across racial and generational fault lines that now is the time to move deliberately on the matter of slavery reparations. This urgent issue can no longer be deferred or marginalized, and the Biden-Harris victory provides a window of opportunity for the reparations movement in the USA.
 
Galvanizing this righteous movement are those 170 legislators who are following the lead of Cong. Sheila Jackson Lee and have chosen to co-sponsor her HR-40 legislation that’s currently making it’s way through Congress and is supported by almost 300 civil and human rights organizations and civil society NGOs that have signed on to the “We Can’t Wait” campaign.
 
A number of other recent developments of major significance to the reparations movement have placed reparations squarely on the public policy agenda-- from landmark, bi-partisan legislation passed in California in September to a resolution adopted by the US Conference of Mayors in support of HR-40, to other state and municipal reparations initiatives from Evanston, Ill to Burlington, VT to Seattle Washington, Providence, RI and many other cities across the land.  
 
Reparations is the mother of all social justice and racial equity issues. It is the concrete answer to America’s reckoning with race, and it is realizable if there is political will to make it happen. Indeed, reparations is the moral imperative of our time, one which calls for sweeping transformations to the power structures that uphold systemic racism. Unfortunately, there is no mention of reparations in the Racial Equity Program of the Biden-Harris team. The introduction to their program says, “the moment has come for our nation to deal with systemic racism…to deal with the growing economic inequality in our nation…to deal with the denial of the promise of this nation to so many.” All true. 
 
Still, Biden and Harris have a moral responsibility to, first and foremost, deliver tangible benefits to those who voted them into office. Biden’s over-emphasis on healing and re-conciliation is wrong-headed. Gratitude begins with those who brought you to the dance. Time and energy cannot be wasted in attempting to reconcile fundamental contradictions with white supremacy.
 
It took a bloody civil war to end slavery and save the American Union.  Yet, today, there are Trump supporters who are openly calling for another civil war to “settle historical matters.” This ominous threat is not to be ignored as Trump tries to pull off a coup in the weeks ahead. To be sure, the past four years of Trumpism have left us all in a collective trauma of mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion. But history calls on us not to pause at this critical juncture and not to be intimidated.
 
We are living in a moment fraught with peril as we confront the prospect of neo-fascism and white nationalism stoking more violence against people of color and their white allies. But this is also a moment pregnant with possibilities to build a powerful and resilient racial and social justice movement armed with a reparations agenda. Our activism must continue to address the heightened contradictions in racialized capitalism that Covid has exposed. With unity in action, we must continue to resist the race/class war that Trump and his ruling class allies are now waging against the broad progressive and multicultural movements of working people.
 
One can also argue that the Biden-Harris team owes to Black and Brown America a new approach to foreign policy, one that rejects the so-called defense of the vital and strategic interests of the American empire and replaces it with a humane foreign policy based on respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all independent nations and with an adherence to the principles of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states, in short, a more civilized foreign policy driven by cooperation and collaboration, not confrontation.
 
In this “lame duck” period, Trump is isolated in the White House, watching hours of TV, neglecting to do his job as President, being spiteful and petty towards the Biden-Harris transition team, uncaring about the rising toll of Covid infections and deaths, wallowing in a swamp of self-pity and, most dangerously, thinking about going to war with Iran, a stupendously reckless and irresponsible adventure that could trigger a major conflagration in the Middle East and beyond.  Trump’s niece Mary in her best selling book describes him as the most dangerous man in the world.  And, that assertion is by no means hyperbolic.
 
As we reflect on this truly historic election that saw some 160 million people voting in the largest turnout in America in the past 100 years, the math of the election results, are at once, revealing and disturbing, and not without a dose of poetic irony….Biden beat Trump by exactly the same amount in the Electoral College (304-232) as Trump had beaten Clinton in 2016. And, Trump lost the popular vote again, this time by some 6 million.
 
Voters of color went big for the Biden-Harris ticket; 87% African American, 65% Latino,  61% Asian and with an overwhelming majority of Native American votes especially in Arizona and Nevada. 58% of all white votes were cast for Trump with 55% of white women voting for this serial sexist.
 
Biden re-established the Democratic “Blue Wall” in states that went for Trump in 2016, thanks to large Black and Brown turnouts in Philadelphia, Detroit, Flint and Milwaukee.
 
Of much concern are the shocking realities that Trump received more African American votes in 2020 than he did in 2016, with 19% of all black male voters casting their lot with this fraud.  One out of every three Black men living in the Midwest voted for Trump. If that Black support had been even slightly higher, Donald Trump would have slept in the White House for another four years. What was it about Trump and Trumpism that appealed to them? Is it a fake machismo or an internalized misogyny, or some other reason that defies logic and rationality? This is a mesmerizing phenomenon that begs for thorough analysis.
 
Thanks to the outstanding political organizing and mobilizing efforts of Black women, especially in the South, Trump was defeated in Georgia. Now, these noble warrior women have set their eyes and hearts on winning the upcoming two Georgia special Senate races and they are preparing for the long-term struggle to uproot the white supremacist cancer that’s poisoning the American body politic. These black women activists have become an inspiration to us all. As one of our wise griots noted, the love of power was defeated by the power of love, the love and concern of Black women for their families and their communities.
 
Instead of being pre-occupied with reconciling differences with the racist, right-wing Republicans, especially with “Moscow Mitch” McDonnell in the Senate, Biden and Harris should mobilize and organize their voters into a grass roots process of building popular democracy. In so doing, their voters will feel invested in the business of improving American Democracy so that it truly serves the majority of its people and finally lives up to its creed of governance by, for and of the people.
 
People of color, and Black people in particular, have long known that White people’s commitment to real democracy can be fickle and inconsistent. Laws, social mores, values, mythologies and beliefs central to the control mechanisms that undergirded human enslavement have been fully entrenched in the mass mentality of White Americans for generations.
 
Far too many White people who profess a belief in Christian values and tenets and pledge fidelity to the Judeo-Christian commandments have found it convenient throughout American history to serve their selfish interests by turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the atrocities of slavery and structural racism. Regrettably, white supremacist ideology still shapes the national psyche. Too many Whites have abused power or tolerated abuse of non-white people in order to maintain a status quo that rewards them. 
 
Our collective task now is to build a vibrant politics that ensures Trumpism is dead and buried.  In carrying out this mission, we must recognize the material and cultural conditions that aided and abetted the rise of Trumpism. Trump himself has no guiding ideology beyond whatever serves him and his family’s financial interests. He is a mobster who conned his way into the White House.
 
But the essence of the Trumpism phenomenon that he has stoked opportunistically these past four years is the politics of white resentment and white grievance that obfuscates the inequities of neo-liberal capitalism. The rise of Trumpism equals the utter failure of neo-liberalism to deliver to working people of all ethnicities, religions and cultures. The core MAGA messages deflect attention from the class inequalities that so many of Trump’s white voters have suffered from neo-liberalism. Instead, they rest on the false notion that America is still a “white man’s country” and all those “others” who are not white must remain in their assigned places of inferiority. White skin privilege and entitlement becomes the substitute for class consciousness and class struggle. It justifies cowardly attacks on people of color rather than confronting Wall Street’s oligarchs and the greedy ruling economic elites that exploit us all.
 
Trump was successful in diverting attention from the profound structural inequities of our time toward an antagonistic politics where giving the middle finger to liberals and progressives would serve as an ideological substitute for systemic change. Consequently, he was able to insulate the economic power of American capital from serious pressure, even handing the corporate elites a huge tax cut, while further corroding democratic institutions. He was able to shroud himself with an aura of personal impunity and power, all the while stoking fears that he was the victim of a vast conspiracy of enemies.
 
Trump’s defeat sparked spontaneous celebrations in countries around the world. But his loss was a severe blow to his fellow demagogues and autocrats around the world, from the dictatorships in Poland, Hungary and Belorussia in Easter Europe to Putin in Russia, Kim Jung Il in North Korea, Duterte in the Philippines and Bolsinaro in Brazil.  Their legitimacy in the eyes of their people will quickly erode in a Trump-less world.
 
The November elections came at a time when the Covid pandemic began a frightening new surge all across the country because of the Trump administration’s incompetence, intransigence and callousness towards human suffering on a vast scale. As the pandemic grew, the economy plunged deeper into crisis, with millions unemployed and with tens of thousands of Black and Brown-owned small businesses going bankrupt. The stock market soared on every piece of good vaccine news while the Main Street economy sunk deeper into depression. Such is the irrationality of neo-liberal capitalism.
 
The pandemic has ripped the mask off of America’s structural inequities, revealing their roots in the country’s race and class dynamics. Both the frontline workers who put their lives on the line each day to fight the pandemic and those who succumb to it are disproportionally Black and Brown people while those who benefitted most from the Covid relief legislation are disproportionally white. Systemic racism is a life and death matter for millions of Americans.
 
Occupying the ranks of Trump voters are not just the heavily armed “Proud Boys” and other maniacs of that ilk or the oft-cited aggrieved white working class, but also millions of “respectable” professionals---doctors, lawyers, engineers, business owners, accountants, teachers, cops, firefighters etc. In fact, exit polls indicated that the majority of Trump voters make over $100,000 in income, which is significantly more than the average annual working class income of $67,000. Millions of these voters are afraid of the demographic destiny of the United States, the inexorable motion of history towards a multicultural and multireligious democracy. So they vote out of a combination of fear and ignorance.
 
With the 2020 elections now behind us, let’s keep in mind that politics doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot. The real work of politics moving forward will involve building new coalitions for progressive causes, rebuilding institutions that have been decimated by the Trumpists and, most critically, working collectively to democratize both the broader culture and the practice of politics itself. The diverse coalition that voted for Biden and Harris must demand accountability. This team now has an historic opportunity to change the course of America both at home and abroad. Let’s hope they do not squander it. 
 
Those grass roots activists, Black, White and Brown, who marched under the banners of the Black Lives Matter Movement and who mobilized millions in the massive anti-racism street demonstrations in the Spring and Summer of 2020 must demand a seat at the table as the Biden-Harris agenda is hammered out. They cannot allow the neo-liberal elites in the Democratic Party to shape this agenda all on their own.
 
The spirit of the Black Lives Matter Movement will provide us with the energy and the inspiration to transform our dreams and aspirations into a new reality, one based on peace, justice and progress for all. In these challenging times we must stand tall and stay strong.
 
A Luta Continua.
Forward Ever, Backward Never.

Don Rojas is a Journalist, Reparationist, and Activist.

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